Can China defend South China Sea island bases?

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CHINA has established military bases on islands built up in the South China Sea, including the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, but can Beijing defend them in an armed conflict?

The question was posed by defense and security analyst Robert Farley in his article that appeared Feb. 19 in The National Interest, an American bimonthly international affairs publication.

He recalled that during World War II, Japan found that control of islands offered some strategic advantages, but not enough to force the United States to reduce each island individually. Moreover, over time the islands became a strategic liability, as Japan struggled to keep them supplied with food, fuel and equipment.

The South China Sea islands are conveniently located for Beijing, but do they represent an asset to its military? Farley’s answer is “Yes,” but added that in an actual conflict their value would dwindle quickly. Excerpts from his article:

“China has established numerous military installations in the South China Sea, primarily in the Spratly and Paracel Islands. In the Spratlys, China has built airfields at Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross, along with potential missile, radar and helicopter infrastructure at several smaller formations. In the Paracels, China has established a significant military installation at Woody Island, as well as radar and helicopter facilities in several other areas.

“China continues construction across the region, meaning that it may expand its military presence in the future. (Philippines, take note. – fdp)

“The larger bases – Subi, Mischief, Fiery Cross and Woody Island – have infrastructure for the management of military aircraft, including fighters and large patrol craft. These missiles, radars and aircraft extend the lethal reach of China’s military across the breadth of the SCS.
“Several of the islands serve as bases for SAM systems – including the HQ-9, with a range of 125 miles, and perhaps eventually the Russian S-400 – and ground-launched cruise missiles, or GLCMs. These missiles serve to make the South China Sea lethal for US ships and aircraft that do not have stealth capabilities, or that do not enjoy a layered air-defense system.

“The SAM installations, buoyed by networks of radars, can effectively limit the ability of enemy aircraft to enter their lethal zone without significant electronic-warfare assistance. The GLCMs can add another set of launchers to China’s A2/AD network, although not necessarily with any greater effectiveness than missiles launched from subs, ships or aircraft.”

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